Friday, November 13, 2009

Don't Burn It -- a major new contribution to war cinema

by Theo Russell

DON’T BURN IT, a remarkable new film about the Vietnam War, was shown recently during the Vietnam Festival Of Culture 2009 in London. It is based on the diary of a young woman doctor, Dang Thuy Tram, at a field hospital in Quang Ngai province, a National Liberation Front stronghold during the war.

The diary’s discovery by a South Vietnamese Army soldier and his American officer begins a process which changes their lives and reverberates to the present day.
In the tradition of socialist war films, the focus of Don’t Burn It is on the effects of war on those caught up in it, rather than the actual fighting. It shows not only the horror and suffering, but the heroism of those defending their homeland and the mental anguish of the occupiers.

Many viewers will be surprised at its portrayal of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, who from the outset are shown as thinking human beings rather than evil barbarians.

Quang, the officer who finds the diary, is transfixed when he starts reading it, and hands it to the US captain, Fred, saying “don’t burn it, it already has fire inside it”. As they start translating the diary, Fred begins to understand his Vietnamese enemies for the first time, changing his life forever.

Written in a traditional Vietnamese style, the diary combines daily events with stirring poetry, which greatly increases its impact. Ho Chi Minh famously kept a similar “diary” while imprisoned by the Chinese nationalists as a spy in 1943.

Many years after the war, at the urging of his mother back in North Carolina, Fred (in real life lawyer Fred Whitehurst) hands the diary to scholars at the University of Texas. Eventually it is published, causing a sensation in Vietnam, and a search begins to find Dr Tram’s family in Hanoi.
During the film scenes of Dr Tram living and working in the midst of war alternate with moving memories of her family life in Hanoi. One of the most interesting sequences shows a researcher travelling around present-day Hanoi by moped in search of her family.

Don’t Burn It is without doubt a major contribution to war cinema. It combines a hatred of war with admiration for the Vietnamese people’s heroic struggle and culture, and the humanity of which ordinary Americans are capable – a powerful message of peace and friendship.

(Don’t Burn It, directed by Dang Nhat Minh, was released in April 2009. The original book, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: An Extraordinary Diary of Courage from the Vietnam War, is available in paperback.)

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